Monday, November 5, 2012
Texas' voter purge made repeated errors
Lise Olsen | November 1, 2012
November 2, 2012
State election officials repeatedly and mistakenly matched active longtime Texas voters to deceased strangers across the country - some of whom perished more than a decade ago - in an error-ridden effort to purge dead voters just weeks before the presidential election, according to a Houston Chronicle review of records.
Voters in legislative districts across Texas with heavy concentrations of Hispanics or African-Americans were more often targeted in that flawed purge effort, according the Chronicle's analysis of more than 68,000 voters identified as possibly dead.
It's unclear why so many more matches were generated in some minority legislative districts. One factor may be the popularity of certain surnames in Hispanic and historically black neighborhoods.
One mismatch threatened the voter registration of James Harris Jr., a U.S. Air Force veteran who has voted in every presidential election since the Richard M. Nixon era.
Harris, who is African-American and shares a name with a dead Arkansas man, last voted in Harris County in July. Yet, inexplicably, he weeks later received a letter asking if he had died - apparently because of the 1996 death of another James Harris, according to the newspaper's review.
Harris voted early in the national elections without further incident - though he took along his voter card, passport and birth certificate just in case anyone wanted more proof he was alive. Harris told the Chronicle he hasn't been able to shake the feeling that "someone has gone to a concerted effort and gone to a lot of time and research coming up with this matrix in a way of being able to knock people off of the voting rolls."
His daughter got a dead voter letter, too. She shares her name and birthday with a Louisiana woman who died in 2010.
Rich Parsons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, confirmed that officials compared information about all Texas voters - including many who had voted since 2010 - to long-dead people in the Social Security Administration's death database, which dates back to 1973. So far, 6,491 voters identified have been purged, he said.
Not limited to race
State officials did not use addresses, middle names or voting history to weed out false matches. Nor was race or ethnicity a factor, Parsons said.
"Neither the Official List of Registered Voters nor the Social Security Death Master File contain any racial or ethnic data, making it impossible for race or ethnicity to play any role or impact in this process," he said.
Indeed, voters of all races received letters, including Republican state legislator Wayne Smith of Baytown, who is white. He apparently was matched with another Smith who died 1,500 miles away in Pennsylvania last year.
He also was one of more than 4,000 Smiths who made the state list.
Parsons noted that no geographical information or addresses were used in the dead voter matchups.
"I would also remind you the Social Security Administration does not guarantee the accuracy of its own list," he said.
An Austin lawyer, who successfully sued to slow the flawed purge, was apparently mixed up with a Wisconsin resident dead since 2003, according to the Chronicle review of Social Security Administration death data.
In an agreement reached in response to the Travis County lawsuit, targeted voters were told they will not be purged unless their deaths are confirmed. But so far, state officials have made no promises to improve the matching process.
"The settlement did not change or impact the process in any way," said Parsons.
More 'dead' minorities
Texas legislators passed a law in 2011 requiring election officials to use Social Security Administration death data to clean voter rolls.
Last summer, election officials prepared two lists. One contained 8,238 so-called "strong matches" - where voters' names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth matched the dead. It generated little controversy.
A much larger list with more than 68,000 "weak matches" - many based on names and birth dates alone - wrought complaints, protests from Dallas and Harris County registrars and the civil suit in Travis County.
The matching effort was overseen by state Director of Elections Keith Ingram, an attorney who has admitted he knew nothing about election law before taking his current job, according to statements he's made under oath. He previously oversaw appointments for Gov. Rick Perry.
Texas voter data includes no ethnicity information. However, the Chronicle found voters living in legislative districts with high percentages of Hispanics or African-Americans were more likely to be listed as "dead" than others statewide. In fact, voters in eight heavily minority districts in Dallas, Houston, El Paso and Brownsville were twice as likely to be targeted as voters statewide.
Within Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, voters living in African-American or Hispanic legislative districts created to improve minority representation also were generally more likely to be listed than those in surrounding counties, the newspaper's analysis found.
State lawmakers, including Elections Committee Vice Chair Rep. Ana Hernandez Luna, a Houston Democrat, already have pledged to review the process to determine why so many voters were wrongly targeted. Her own district, which is heavily Hispanic, had a high match rate.
State Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, a Dallas Democrat, says she too wants to know why the analysis appeared to have a disproportionate impact on districts like hers, which has a high concentration of African-American voters.
"I'm obviously very alarmed and concerned about the possible disenfranchisement of someone's opportunity to vote …?," she told the Chronicle. "I'm concerned about the accuracy of the list … and I'd like more of an investigation."
One of the four Texans who sued the state after being wrongly targeted was Austin attorney Andrew Dylan Wood, a longtime Travis County voter whose father, "Buck" Wood, formerly served as a Texas director of elections. Andrew Wood's name was linked to a Wisconsin man who died in 2003. Wood has voted at least eight times since then.
His hope, he said, "is that after the lawsuit that the secretary of state doesn't do this any more, that they've had their experiment and it did not work, and they will figure another way to clear up the rolls."